Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the controversial Yasukuni shrine Thursday, sparking outrage in China and South Korea and further damaging Japan's already frosty relations with the region. Yasukuni shrine honors the country's nearly 2.5 million war dead, including convicted World War II war criminals.
Abe said his visit was a personal one to honor the spirits of the dead and was not meant to hurt Chinese or Korean sentiments. He said his presence was meant to show Japan was against war.
Nonetheless, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang responded sharply to Abe's action.
Qin said the Chinese government wished to express strong outrage and protest, and solemnly condemns Japanese leaders ruthlessly trampling the feelings of Chinese people, and people of other war-affected Asian countries, and bluntly challenging historical justice and human conscience.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency quoted an un-named government official saying the shrine visit would have diplomatic repercussions.
Since taking office a year ago, Abe has sought summit meetings with the new leaders in China and South Korea. However, both Beijing and Seoul have shunned the Japanese prime minister, blaming him for trying to re-interpret Japan's colonial and war time history.
Japan's neighbors are also concerned about Abe's plans to change the country’s pacifist constitution to expand the role of Japan's self-defense forces.
South Korea's Minister of Culture, Yoo Jin-ryong, read a short statement on live TV on behalf of the government, in which he said Abe’s trip to the Yasukuni shrine shows his incorrect understanding of history. He also said that the visit was an anachronistic action which damages fundamental stability and cooperation in Northeast Asia.
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe follows a Shinto priest as he visits Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, Dec. 26, 2013.
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe bows beside a Shinto priest as he visits Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, Dec. 26, 2013.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe follows a Shinto priest to pay respect for the war dead at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, Dec. 26, 2013.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, Dec. 26, 2013.
Visitors hang fortune blessing papers at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, Dec. 26, 2013.
Abe is the first sitting prime minister to visit the shrine since 2006, when Junichiro Koizumi went to pay respects. Koizumi’s frequent trips to Yasukuni fueled anti-Japanese sentiment and rioting in China.
To help repair relations, Abe declined to visit the shrine during his first term in office (2006-2007) or in August to mark the anniversary of Japan's surrender.
It is not clear why he chose to visit Yasakuni now when Japan's relations in Northeast Asia are at a low point over territorial disputes and historical grievances.
The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo expressed disappointment with Abe's action and said it will worsen tensions with Japan's neighbors.
VOA Seoul Bureau Producer Youmi Kim contributed to this report.